Thanks to covid-19 and the RAT tests that have been used for its diagnosis, many people are now comfortable and familiar with home-based, quick tests to determine disease status. Dr Richard Winkworth says thanks to the high profile of covid testing, conversations around using his company’s quick DNA testing process to diagnose production diseases have become a lot easier.
Ampersand Technologies is a spinoff firm from Massey University, only one year old and partly funded with co-investment from Matu, a venture capital fund focused on early-stage science and tech. Investment has also come from Massey Ventures, the university’s commercialisation arm.
Winkworth was recently recognised in the KiwiNet research commercialisation awards when he was selected as a finalist in the Breakthrough Innovator section.
Ampersand’s offering revolves around a DNA technology that can be used to identify a wide range of organisms, including fungi, bacteria and viruses. Winkworth describes the testing as being on par with the infamous RAT test for speed, but with accuracy akin to the RAT’s gold-plated cousin, the PCR test.
At their simplest, Ampersand’s LAMP (loop-mediated amplification) tests can also be conducted without the need for expensive equipment or highly trained specialists to conduct and interpret results.
“By way of comparison, a high-throughput PCR machine could set you back about $60,000. We have just purchased a LAMP device for $1000, capable of doing multiple tests, with subscription software that ensures it can be regularly upgraded.”
The global wind-back in government investment in covid diagnostics means that there is considerable capacity and diagnostic tech looking for new applications, with New Zealand’s primary sector among the potential beneficiaries.
While careful not to knock the long-proven PCR tests used for the detection of covid and many other diseases, Winkworth said a bottleneck for conventional disease testing is the centralised lab model so often used during large-scale disease outbreaks.
“The M bovis response provided a very clear illustration of just how quickly centralised testing facilities can become overwhelmed in New Zealand. Not only does this slow our response to the outbreak itself, but it means other work also stalls.
“The beauty of low-cost, low-investment LAMP assays is the decentralisation of testing and result delivery. Testing can be conducted on site with the results used within minutes to make decisions about treatment or other actions.”
The company has conducted and proven tests for several diseases, but most recently has been focused on efforts to trace the organism responsible for kauri dieback disease.
“Essentially, if there is genetic material, DNA or RNA in the case of a virus, there is the potential to detect it with a LAMP test tailored to the needs of end users.”
A spin-off from Ampersand’s kauri dieback work has been the development of a test for detesting phytophthora, problematic in avocado orchards and for various other horticultural crops. A test for myrtle rust has also been developed.
LAMP tests offer an effective bio-security tool for use at borders, and Winkworth can also see an array of tests that producers could use to make informed farming and growing decisions.
“One of the biggest drawbacks to our current testing approaches is the time it takes between sampling and having lab results back.”
For example, faecal egg counts are typically conducted well after nematode infection and require stock to be transported to a testing facility.
On-farm LAMP testing could be used to check for nematodes in a pasture so a farmer can avoid grazing young lambs on paddocks with high nematode loads.
Likewise, on-farm testing to determine what bacterium is causing mastitis in a cow may allow treatment to be targeted – and limit the opportunities for the development of antibiotic resistance.
“For orchardists wondering whether to spray after a warm, wet period, a regular LAMP testing programme would tell them whether there are even any fungal spores present to worry about, and if not then they save on spraying, both financially and environmentally.”
In the coming months Winkworth and his team are keen to liaise with primary sector groups, identifying what their particular disease issues are, and beginning to develop bespoke tests that growers and farmers can use to dodge pest and disease bullets.